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Were Trio of Terrorist Messages Coordinated?

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Within the space of a week, the three most wanted terrorists in the world all released new video or audiotapes. Intelligence experts are debating whether that's a coincidence. They're also scouring the tapes for code words and clues, anything that might reveal where the men are hiding.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.

MARY LOUISE KELLY reporting:

The first broadcast came from Osama bin Laden. Of the three, it's the most sweeping, laying out a global agenda that ranges from Iraq and Sudan, to expressions of solidarity with the new Palestinian government. Tape number two came two days later, this one from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a leader of the insurgency in Iraq.

Mr. ABU MUSAB AL-ZARQAWI (Terrorist Leader): (Foreign language spoken)

KELLY: Zarqawi's message is much more narrowly focused on the conflict in Iraq. The third tape to appear also focuses mainly on one country--this time, Pakistan.

Mr. AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI (Deputy Leader, Al-Qaida): (Foreign language spoken)

KELLY: That's Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's deputy leader. On his video, which surfaced Friday on an Islamist Web site, he rails against Pakistan's government and calls for the overthrow of President Pervez Musharraf. Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East expert at the Congressional Research Service, says it appears Zawahiri was spooked by U.S. air strikes that reportedly only barely missed him this past January.

Dr. KENNETH KATZMAN (Middle East Expert, Congressional Research Service): He may fear that some people in Pakistan may have maybe betrayed his location. Perhaps, he's moving to try to rebuild his relations with the Pakistani tribes that are surrounding him and trying to prevent any betrayal.

KELLY: The trio of tapes has set off alarm bells in intelligence circles. In part, because past broadcasts have often been followed by terrorist attacks. Last week saw five bombings in Egypt's Sinai Desert, the first wave of attacks just a day after bin Laden's message aired. But a U.S. counter-terrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says so far there's no evidence linking the events. This official also says the close timing of the three tapes seems to be coincidence, rather than a coordinated campaign.

Still, the tapes offer plenty of interesting tidbits to dissect, says Evan Kohlmann. Kohlmann runs the Web site globalterroralert.com. He watched with interest the Zarqawi video, which depicts Zarqawi cradling an assault rifle, pouring over a map, and looking a bit chubby.

Mr. EVAN KOHLMANN (Terrorism Expert, Globalterroralert.com): I think the most common joke about the Zarqawi video is that Zarqawi has gained quite a bit of weight. And that is somewhat surprising, given that this story that he's running around frantically trying to avoid U.S. forces in central Iraq. It may be an indication that Zarqawi is a lot less mobile, and perhaps eating a lot better than we had assumed.

KELLY: This video marks the first time Zarqawi has appeared without a mask, and the U.S. counter-terrorism official says it's an attempt to demonstrate his ongoing relevance. The official says that same theme runs through all three tapes--adding, if there's a common thread, it's Jihadist bravado.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.